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Review: The Exorcist (1973)

The Exorcist (1973)

Directed by: William Friedkin

Premise: When a twelve year old girl (Linda Blair) is possessed by a demon, her mother (Ellen Burstyn) turns to a Catholic priest (Jason Miller) for help. He and an older member of the clergy (Max Von Sydow) attempt to save the girl by performing an exorcism.

What Works: The Exorcist is a legendary motion picture and its mythical status has as much to do with the reputation and rumors surrounding the movie as it does with the actual content of the film. When it was released in 1973, rumors about strange or supernatural phenomena on the filmmaking set, reports of the deaths of people connected to the movie, and the extreme reactions to the film by some audience members conspired to create an entire mythology around The Exorcist that was bigger than the motion picture itself. But even setting those concerns aside, The Exorcist remains potent viewing forty years after its release. This is an extraordinarily well made film and it uses sound and imagery to full effect. The Exorcist has a reputation as a shocker and although there are several intense and properly awful moments, much of the movie is quiet with dread gradually cultivating over the course of the story. This is accomplished through some very effective cinematic choices. The Exorcist was shot in a very realistic, verite style, and that gives it a look that sells the fantastic premise of the story. The soundtrack is also unusual. The film has few musical cues and instead of a score the soundtrack makes use of sound effects, percussion, and ambient sound. This is very unsettling and when it is combined with the film’s imagery, the effect puts the viewer on edge. The Exorcist is also a skillfully written and tightly edited film that uses parallelism between the plotlines to draw the characters together and unify the story. Writer William Peter Blatty’s dialogue hits all the right notes, rarely lecturing on principles of good and evil and letting the subtext organically emerge. This is also a film with impressive visual effects. The demonic makeup is now classic and many other practical effects, like the infamous head rotation, are very cleverly executed. But for all its visceral shocks, the most disconcerting aspect of The Exorcist is the way it suggests that evil is alive in the world and that rational methods are ill equipped to deal with it. This film was released during the New Hollywood era, a period of American cinema that was defined by gritty motion pictures whose stories often suggested disillusionment and moral ambiguity and concluded with downbeat endings, reflecting the mentality of a culture that had been traumatized by riots, the assassinations of high profile political figures, and the imagery of the Vietnam War. The Exorcist springs from that context but ironically the movie is ultimately conservative in its disposition. The Exorcist is really about the recovery of stability and a return to faith and this is conveyed through its two intertwined narratives. The main plotline is of a parent coping with the demonic possession of her daughter, and the mother first appeals to science, allowing her daughter to suffer through a battery of tests. Although the possession scenes are tough the medical sequences are some of the most uncomfortable moments in the film and the eventual realization that medicine and psychiatry are unequipped to deal with the reality of evil strikes at the heart of progressive, secular modernity. At the same time The Exorcist includes a subplot of a young priest who is on the verge of losing his faith and must recover his conviction in order to conquer evil. When these stories converge in the exorcism ritual, the filmmakers have set up an allegorical confrontation in which the fight to free this young girl of her possession takes on cosmic symbolism of the struggle between good and evil. And, rather incredibly, the filmmakers manage to sell that.

What Doesn’t: The Exorcist is a religious—and specifically Catholic—film in much the same way that The Passion of the Christ and A Christmas Carol are also religious pictures. Appreciating a film (or any other piece of art) is possible without subscribing to the doctrine; a belief in the Christian story is not required to admire the beauty and skill of the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. But it is hard, if not impossible, to separate the ideology from the imagery and it can be argued that a full appreciation of The Exorcist requires a belief in Catholic doctrine. In that respect there is another way to understand The Exorcist that is much more troubling. The symptoms of demonic possession as presented in this film are often very sexual and have a lot of parallels to adolescence and puberty. Within that reading of the film, the scientists and medical technicians treat the girl’s burgeoning womanhood as a disease and when it can’t be cured she is turned over to a pair of men to ritualistically dispel it, freezing this young woman in an innocent stage of emotional development. This interpretation of The Exorcist is merited and has serious implications for the themes of the film. However, latent misogyny is not the filmmakers’ point and this metaphorical reading is at best an inference that is overshadowed by the other aspects of the picture. The hearts of the filmmakers and their characters are in the right place and that is what ultimately defines this movie.

DVD extras: There are two versions of The Exorcist: the original theatrical cut (running 122 minutes) and the extended “Version You’ve Never Seen” (running 132 minutes). The blu-ray edition includes both versions as well as featurettes, a documentary, commentary tracks, interviews, image galleries, radio and TV spots, trailers, and an introduction by William Friedkin.

Bottom Line: The Exorcist remains an important film of the New Hollywood period and it is one of the essential horror pictures of American cinema. In the forty years since its release The Exorcist has retained an ability to get under the skin of the viewer, whatever his or her religious orientation, and although it materialized out of a very specific temporal and cultural context, The Exorcist gets at something essential about human nature that makes it timeless.

Episode: #210 (October 26, 2008); Revised #460 (October 13, 2013)